Book Review: Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970:
Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community
Mennonites in American Society,
1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community. By Paul Toews. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald
Press, 1996. (The Mennonite Experience in America, vol. 4.) Paper.
$19.95 (Canada, $28.50).
To chronicle for the very first
time, and then to go on to interpret a variegated set of groups
at odds with one another in culture and dress, in doctrine and
theology, is no mean task. Yet such was the mandate Paul Toews
accepted when he agreed to write a volume on the Mennonite experience
in America from the 1920s and into the 1970s.
Attempting to do justice to the tensions inherent in such variegation,
Toews developed a typology, describing and then comparing the
"traditionalists" (the "Old Orders" et al.)
with the "progressives" (General Conference Mennonites
being the best example of this type) (p. 33). Toews finds common
ground and vision among all Amish and Mennonite groups, centering
in "the notion of the kingdom of God being incarnated in
human forms in all ages of history," that it "should
be recognizable and distinguishable from the kingdoms of this
world," and that "the church, not secular structures,
is God's main agent for bringing forth and demonstrating God's
kingdom." Toews then contrasts the two: "What is different
is how Old Orders and their modernizing cousins try to embody
these ideas" (292).
Toews is both fair and sympathetic in his analysis and interpretation
of all Mennonite groups (the Amish generally acknowledge their
faith to be "Mennonite"). All groups end up having
a valid raison d'être, although Toews does wrestle
with and challenge some of them once in a while, as we shall
see, using the Anabaptist Vision as something of a yardstick.
How does one write a first-time book based on millions of unpublished
documents and hundreds of secondary sources? Paul Toews has done
the possible, and has done it well, choosing the thematic route
of history of ideas, rather than that of a more pure social-historical
methodology. He justifies the inclusion of the many groups right
at the outset, opening the first chapter with a description of
the close cooperation among several larger Mennonite groups already
at hand in 1930, the terminus a quo of the volume. The
author also dips back into Anabaptist history, setting modern
Mennonitism within its larger religious context, anticipating
the story that unfolds in the 13 chapters in the volume.
To be noted in the structuring of the volume is a shift in thrust
from a more obvious social-historical methodology, early on,
to a purer history of ideas approach; from the study of a movement,
congregationally and denominationally, to ideas and differing
points of view (in later chapters) as held by a few, select leaders.
The volume follows a natural progression, from chapter to chapter,
stepping from an analysis of the theological and ideological
structures in the 1930s, to the successful attempts on the part
of such leaders as Harold S. Bender (The Anabaptist Vision)
to bring a high degree of resolution to the debate, in a manner
that helped meet the new demands of the Second World War upon
Mennonitism in general. The next set of chapters charts the transformations
brought about by the Second World War, leading up to deeper ties
and interrelationships among many Mennonite groups, suggesting
the possibility of closer structural ties. A separate chapter
on the Old Orders follows, which is justified thematically, in
the light of an ever widening cultural-social gulf between the
Old Orders and the more progressive groups, especially since
the 1960s. A final chapter discusses the impact of the Vietnam
War on Mennonites.
Toews closes his last chapter by noting the seminal and brilliant
work of John H. Yoder, centering in his volume, The Politics
of Jesus. Toews says, "If Yoder's book was appealing
beyond Mennonite circles, it also offered a powerful reminder
to Mennonites who were rapidly losing their distinct sociology.
Like Hershberger and Bender before him, Yoder still offered Mennonites
a middle ground. That ground lay between being a marginal people,
existing only on society's fringes, and becoming merely a part
of a modern society which was adept at undermining prophetic
sects by folding them into the approved, established order. Messianic
communities should and could be powerful instruments of witness.
If they were, they would keep their distinct peoplehood"
Toews' bias is that of a sympathetic interpreter, combined with
the historian's perspective; the era under consideration is set
within the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite context of the generations
and centuries that preceded. In this regard, for example, Toews
chronicles, in the thought and writings of a number of Mennonites
from the 1930s and 1940s, major discrepancies between their supposed
Mennonite theology, and the longer-standing Anabaptist-Mennonite
historical tradition. In the author's words, "not only were
Mennonites caught between conservatism and liberalism; even more,
they had not articulated a theological system appropriate to
their history and position in society. Protestant Fundamentalism
and liberalism were both alien to them" (78).
Toews then goes on to chronicle
how certain Mennonites dealt with Fundamentalism, especially
from the 1920s through the 1940s or so, and how, slowly but surely,
a new vision would take hold, through the efforts of C. Henry
Smith, Harold S. Bender, Guy F. Hershberger, J. Winfield Fretz,
John B. Toews and others.
This is a noble and brave book. The author discovers the underlying
faith and love that permeates a people, allowing at the same
time for keen imperfections to surface. Toews believes in the
power of idea, in the genuineness and power of the Anabaptist
Vision: "In the 1940s Mennonites' greatest intellectual
achievement -- Harold Bender's 'Anabaptist Vision' -- was a response
to an identity crisis. Bender had sought an intellectual and
ancestral home for a people bewildered by rapid social change.
...Harold Bender's Anabaptist Vision ... was the crowning achievement
of twentieth-century ideological reconstruction of Mennonite
identity" (339, 341).
The volume ends on a note of hope, suggesting we're in on this
Mennonite thing together, that for the post-1970s, it is largely
up to us to determine how the story is to continue, and furthermore,
that vision continues to play an important role in our denominational
health. Toews sees two major types of Mennonites emerging during
the half-century he was interpreting, beginning around 1930:
the Old Order groups, continuing in large part their societal
separation from the outside world, and the progressive Mennonites,
working at "preserving community via new denominational
structures, ideological formulas and ecumenical alliances."
(342). Toews sees both strategies working, at least into the
Critique. The reader may well wonder why the volume limits
Mennonites geographically to the confines of the United States.
The American (i.e., non-Canadian) perimeters were indeed set
for the volume back in the early 1970s when the series was being
conceived, in deference to a few Canadian scholars eager to write
the Canadian side of the North American equation. On the one
hand, this decision permitted a more natural correlation of the
inner Mennonite community with the outer societal and political
context, the results of which are especially significant during
times of war. On the other hand, such imposed limits truncate
the larger Mennonite reality of being a presence, separate from
the state, a reality which knows no national borders, and where
Mennonite conferences such as the Northwest Conference of the
Mennonite Church find themselves existing on both sides of the
Worthy of note, given current discussions on the significance
of differing church polities for the idea of merger, is the tension
which often was at play between congregational authority and
a more centralized, authoritative leadership, and the role institutionalism
played in this regard. "How to structure both congregations
and conferences," is how Toews asks the question. He answers
it in part by quoting sociologist Paul Peachey, who maintained
that Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists had "consistently thought
in congregational terms," and that the modern building of
central Mennonite institutions brought with it a loss of inner
Toews shows an unusually good understanding of key leaders such
as Bender, Hershberger, and Orie O. Miller (individuals whom
this reviewer knew personally), the assumption being that Toews
did equally well in portraying General Conference Mennonite and
Mennonite Brethren leaders, et al. Yet in way of further critique,
more could have been said about the influence Robert Friedmann
held upon Bender in the defining of the Anabaptist Vision.
Another problem has to do with the use of the word "district"
for regional Mennonite conferences. Although the word district
may be apropos for some other groups, it is not adequate in describing
the Mennonite Church tradition. More also could have been said
about the Hutterites; although there is some reason to view them
in a different light than, say, the Amish, they too are part
of the Mennonite World Conference tradition. A theme deserving
of greater emphasis than given in the volume was that of the
communal, house church movement of the Fifties. The photographs
in the volume lack sparkle, although the binding and paper are
good. And on page 319 and following, more could have been said
about Hershberger's shift in the 1960s in his views concerning
taking the message of peace and social justice to the corridors
From the many volumes published each year, a few will emerge
as classics. This magnum opus promises to become one such classic,
with substance, carefully selected, written with intelligent
respect and fairness for the whole spectrum of Mennonite groups,
tied together with obvious vision. Toews possesses the amazing
ability of bringing clarity to his work, in spite of the myriad
facts. He is aware of, and does justice to the general contextual
literature "out there," and not only to the Mennonite
story, in the narrower sense.
With balance, trust and good will, Toew's completed "patchwork
quilt" is believable; it impels the reader to recommit to
the same vision of the human response of discipleship, fulfilled
in a close interrelating community with an eye for love and peace
-- our ongoing vision, now centuries in the making.